In 50 rounds of an amateur draft, a team that walks away with an All-Star, an everyday player, and a couple of utility players should consider themselves lucky. It's the nature of the draft -- amateur players are little baby turtle hatchlings trying to reach the ocean. Circling above them are whatever eats both baby turtles and baseball careers. Herons with a taste for rotator cuffs, I suppose.
There are two truisms:
- You can't just build a lineup or rotation in one draft.
- Even the teams that have an awful draft can usually get something out of it. A backup shortstop, or a lefty reliever. Something.
These are pretty universal. The best drafts are measured in a handful of players. And even in the worst drafts, a couple of players sneak through for a cup of coffee.
But there are two obvious anomalies in draft history, and it's why they're the easy picks as the best team draft or all-time, and the worst.
The best single-team draft ever
The Dodgers won the World Series in 1981, and three different pennants in the ‘70s, in large part because of an infield that featured Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and Davey Lopes. All three of those players were drafted in 1968, combining for 20 (!) All-Star appearances between them. The Dodgers also drafted players who had success with other teams, like Doyle Alexander, Tom Paciorek, and Bill Buckner. Buckner did not win a World Series. Actually, I'm not even sure if he ever appeared in a Fall Classic. I'll have to look that up later.
The draft was split into three parts back then -- the June draft, the secondary June draft, and the January draft, with the Dodgers picking up the trio of infielders in the latter two. It’s unbelievable that a team could draft 3/8ths of a starting lineup -- a infield that stayed together for a decade and won four pennants -- in a single year.
The worst single-team draft ever
Calling the draft a lottery is too much. The odds of winning a lottery are millions to one. Drafts are a long shot, but the lottery analogy is too hyperbolic. The draft is more like a pitcher at the plate. Most of the time they make an out, but about 11% of the time, or so, they'll sneak a ball through a hole. Maybe they'll even get a solid, line-drive single. About once every two years, they might hit a home run.
The draft the Atlanta Braves had in 1981, then, was like a pitcher going 0-for-50 for a season. Think about all of the awful-hitting pitchers you’ve watched. Randy Johnson, for instance. Even he could squeak out a few hits each season. The Braves couldn’t even draft a player that was the equivalent of a slow dribbler down the line that wouldn’t go foul.
Fifty-one picks between the three phases of the draft. Zero major leaguers. How does this happen? Well, there are different ways to run a draft. Some are more successful than others. Using your first pick, the 12th-overall pick in the draft, on a player who doesn’t play baseball might be an iffy strategy:
"Everyone thought the Braves were crazy," said Sam Bakotich, the sports editor of The Chronicle in Centralia and who covered (Jay) Roberts’ career. "But they drafted what they thought was the best athlete available. They thought they could teach him how to hit a curveball. He could beat the hell out of a fastball, but he didn’t have much luck with a curveball."
Everyone was right. To be fair to the Braves, there weren’t a lot of successful picks right after Roberts. Still, they defied the odds by not getting anyone at all who played in the majors, even for just a Moonlight Graham cameo.
There will be winners and losers of this week’s draft. But there won’t be a winner like the Dodgers or a loser like the Braves. Those are once-in a century kind of things, it seems safe to say, even without a century’s worth of drafting in baseball history on which to base that claim.